Judge Gordon Sullivan is getting a little long in the tooth.
Our review of Vamps, published November 28th, 2012, is also available.
As a rule, Hollywood is not kind to women. Stars shine for significantly short periods when they're women, and female writer/directors usually only get a single shot at the brass ring, making a single feature before being relegated to another role or disappearing off the map entirely. Amy Heckerling is one of the rare exceptions, a woman who has made a name for herself as a writer, a director, and as a writer/director of her own material. She took part (as director) in the classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High and (as a writer) in the funny Look Who's Talking, but her undisputed masterpiece is that titan of 90s culture Clueless. That film alone should have rocketed Heckerling straight to the A-list and allowed her to make any number of dream projects in the ensuing decades. Sadly, that was not to be the case, and the lackluster Loser and I Could Never Be Your Woman resulted. Vamps, however, hopes to redeem Heckerling's reputation by re-teaming her with Alicia Silverstone for a comedy that tackles similar themes to her break-out feature. The result is a comedy that will surely attain cult status, though it won't be a treat for everyone.
Facts of the Case
Goody (Alicia Silverstone, Clueless) is a vampire in NYC living with her fellow undead friend Stacy (Krysten Ritter, Confessions of a Shopaholic). They forever-young and single cruising the nightclubs in search of love (and not blood—both ladies belong to an AA-type organization for those who abstain from drinking human blood). Their maker (Sigourney Weaver, Alien) sometimes causes trouble by being demanding, but what these undead pals are really worried about is finding love and avoiding Van Helsing (Wallace Shawn, The Princess Bride).
Vamps gets something so fundamentally right that makes it very easy to overlook a lot of flaws: the movie is fun. Heckerling could have succumbed to the temptation to re-team with Silverstone and make a tired retread of Clueless in an attempt to recapture some of her former glory. Honestly, it's kind of what I was expecting from the film. Instead, Vamps offers exactly what other good Amy Heckerling flicks do: witty dialogue, a narrative that moves along without being overbearing, and a focus on empowerment and romance for young(ish) women.
To this stew of usual influences, Heckerling adds a whole host of amazing cameos or supporting characters. Whenever any scene starts to drag, we're offered a new or different cameo that is both surprising and perfectly apt. Wallace Shawn makes an inhumanely perfect Van Helsing, and his performance manages to recall both his turn in The Princess Bride while also parodying the kind of seriousness brought to the role by others like Anthony Hopkins. Sigourney Weaver manages to both reinforce her "tough girl" image from the Alien franchise while also poking fun at that image. Malcolm McDowell similarly plays with his own image as Vlad Tepes (who now doesn't drink human blood). And that's just the major appearances. Fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy the boyish Dan Stevens, and Richard Lewis' appearance helps the film tremendously.
That is not, of course, to disparage the leads. Both Silverstone and Ritter are absolutely winning in their roles as Goody and Stacy. Though perhaps shallower than some, these vamps are not as naïve as Heckerling's Clueless characters. However, there's plenty of room for the actresses to be get good comic lines while also offering some poignant moments of character development as well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are, of course, numerous problems with Vamps. For various reasons Heckerling needs to make some changes to vampire lore (including the idea that only some vamps can create other vamps). That means the beginning of the film is a bit rocky as Heckerling introduces us to her characters and her world. For the first 20 minutes there's no clear sense of what the film is actually going to be about, and though I think the lack of an overbearing plot is a good thing, I can very much understand viewers hitting "stop" after the first 15 minutes. I think it would be a mistake, but it's understandable. This is also a film that seems destined for cult status from the start. It creates its own little world and invites us in, but those not willing to give in to Heckerling's brand of witty dialogue will find even the best parts of this film to be too much. Finally, the flick is a little like junk food—great while you're consuming it, but without much substance in the end. That doesn't bother me as a viewer, but those looking for a weightier flick will be disappointed.
Then, there's this Blu-ray release, which isn't that great. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded image is merly so-so. Some scenes are sharp and bright with good colors. However, too many scenes seem excessively soft and there are a few too many instances of digital noise to give this transfer an easy pass, even for a comedy. The TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is a bit better, but with not much more than dialogue and music to manage it doesn't have a lot to showcase. That dialogue is clear and well-balanced with the music, but directionality isn't a big feature.
More damning, though, is the utter lack of extras. Aside from some trailers that play when the disc is inserted we get nothing. Heckerling has essentially survived as a kind of cult director, and if Vamps is to succeed it's going to need to grow a cult audience. One of the chief ways to do that is to include material that allows fans to continue to interact with the world of the film. None of these things, like interviews, featurettes, or a commentary track, is present. The film's trailer isn't even included.
Vamps is a fun flick that might not ever attain the classic status of Clueless, but it does provide 90 minutes of entertainment and proof that Amy Heckerling and Alicia Silverstone should do more work together. The lack of extras on this disc make it hard to recommend for purchase, but it's a strong rental recommendation for anyone interested in the actors or writer/director.
Dating bites. Vamps doesn't.
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Studio: Anchor Bay
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